My last trip to the East Coast, I found Charleston, South Carolina on the cusp of its soft shell crab season. The first night in town, a friend and I visited a highly regarded seafood restaurant, hoping to catch a glimpse of it on the specials board. No such luck. There are plenty of amazing things to eat in the Holy City, so we spent the long weekend focused on Southern cooking, traditional Gullah food, and BBQ. But I didn’t stop monitoring local news outlets, hoping for an announcement. Our last night in town, we tried again.
5625 Paseo Del Norte, Carlsbad
“They’re in!” our waitress told us, “but they’ve been moving fast, and there are only two left!” She earned a big fat tip, hurrying across the dining room to make sure we got those last two crabs, fried in corn meal batter, fresh from the ocean that day.
It’s exactly the sort of regional delicacy that rewards foodie travel, and felt like the crowning achievement of a vacation well fed. They say soft shell crab season begins sometime around the May full moon, when blue crabs begin swelling their bodies to molt their shells, then remain soft for several days while a replacement shell hardens. The value isn’t that they taste particularly different than blue crab does other times of the year, but that neither diners nor chefs have to work around a hard shell. So, rather than cracking open steamed crab to scoop/suck out its flesh, you can eat the whole thing, fried or pan cooked. It’s possible to find frozen soft shell year round, but I find it tends to taste a little funky, compared to fresh.
This May, I got word I didn’t have to travel east to find fresh soft shell crab. Regional chain King’s Fish House just started flying in live soft shell crabs multiple times a week. They come from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, which is awesome, because though it’s considered to have the best blue crab fishery in the U.S., Maryland isn’t high on anyone’s wish list of vacation destinations.
King’s has a location in Mission Valley, but I went looking for my crab fix in Carlsbad, near the Flower Fields, to check out the results of that restaurant’s recent renovation. The space looks great, revealing a tasteful mix of polished wood, brick, steel, and glass, as well as plenty of comfortable, upholstered furniture. That comfort even extends to a spacious covered patio. The menu is huge, ranging from sushi and raw bar offerings to a dozen kinds of grilled fish, including occasional local catch. In addition to several crab dishes, globally sourced treats include Spanish octopus, manila clams, and wild-caught Alaskan halibut.
825 Camino de la Reina, Mission Valley
But I did not stray from my soft shell intentions, needing only to decide between a choice of three preparations, each priced at $26.25. The Southern prep offered deep fried crabs alongside fried green tomatoes and succotash. Deep-fried crab with curry comes with Okinawan sweet potatoes and tomato chutney. I opted for the picatta preparation: sautéed crab served over pearled couscous, with lemon butter and capers. My plate appeared with pair of crabs, soft shells seared crisp golden and brown, lending texture to the clean, fresh, and delicious meat within. In other words: just as satisfying as my Charleston find, even without the suspense.
Fortunately for us, soft shell season runs longer in Maryland than South Carolina, so we may expect to see these on the menu through August if not September, without the need to plan a vacation around it.